Quarterback Nick Mullens gives himself a passing grade, with the qualifier that there’s plenty of room for improvement. Southern Miss might have to clear space in its trophy case if he and the Golden Eagles continue their current arc.
Mullens and his mates have made remarkable strides under head coach Todd Monken, who in three years revived an anemic offense and a program that had hit the skids.
“I think it’s a tribute to hard work,” Mullens said of the offensive surge. “If you look at the personnel, it hasn’t changed that much. But we’re more experienced. The coaches are doing a good job of playing to players’ strengths and putting us in position to make plays.”
The Golden Eagles (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) aim to keep pace atop the conference’s West Division Saturday at FBS newcomer Charlotte (2-4, 0-3). They already have won as many games this season as the previous three years combined.
Mullens’ improvement mirrors that of the team. The 6-1, 196-pound junior from Hoover, Ala., is in his third year as a starter. He is second in the conference in passing, to Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty, at 335.4 yards per game and third in pass efficiency. He is sixth nationally in passing yardage (2,348), seventh in yards per game and eighth in touchdown passes (17).
“Overall, he’s played real well,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey. “He manages the game, he makes good throws, he gets us in and out of plays and he leads the team.”
Lindsey, in his second season at Southern Miss, coached Mullens in high school and sees the same qualities that made him Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama as a senior.
“One of his strengths is preparation and attention to detail,” Lindsey said. “He’s a student of the game. He’s the first one (at practice), the last one off the field. He’s tough, he stays in the pocket. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Mullens has thrown for more than 300 yards in five consecutive games, with a career-best 447 yards in a loss to Nebraska, and contributed to Southern Miss’ remarkable offensive jump. The Golden Eagles average 34.7 points per game and are one of 15 teams in FBS averaging more than 500 yards per game (509.4). Last season, they averaged 19 points and 365 yards per game. The rushing attack made a seismic leap, from 95.8 yards per game a year ago to 174 yards per game this season.
The Golden Eagles have multiple playmakers. Receivers Casey Martin, Michael Thomas and D.J. Thompson have caught at least 27 passes and combined for 13 touchdowns. Backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith have rushed for more than 500 yards apiece and nine touchdowns.
“The running game makes it a lot easier for your passing game,” Mullens said. “When the defense has to worry about the running game, it stresses them and makes them have to play more honest. That opens things up for your receivers.”
Though Mullens was the returning starter, the coaching staff brought in Tyler Matthews, a transfer from TCU, and staged an open competition at quarterback.
“In college football, you’re going to face adversity and there’s always going to be challenges,” Mullens said. “I just had to continue to work hard and focus on myself and the things I had to do to become a better player. It was probably the biggest challenge of my career, but any athlete is always looking for competition. I believe having Tyler here made me better as a player and a person.”